Recently a reader asked about series for her middle-grade son, in particular those that feature characters of color. She wants books where the protagonists and supporting cast have diversity, but that don't explicitly deal with race as a feature of the storyline. Her son wants books about kids that "look like me", a desire I think all of us can relate to. How many times can you read books about characters you have nothing in common with, before you just give up on reading altogether?
To that end, I began researching series that might fit the bill. I was pleased to uncover quite a few, from beginner readers up to those for older kids. Best of all, many of them are just fun to read, with the kind of easy plots and satisfying resolutions that we look for when we read series books. For reluctant readers, the prospect of tackling a new book might seem easier when they've already gone through the process of getting to know the characters. Being able to relax into the storyline and watch familiar friends navigate the events they encounter is the very best part of series fiction. (When life is especially stressful for me, I often turn to mystery series -- the formulaic nature of the books can be a welcome relief from chaos!)
One of the best series I've found so far is Sharon M. Draper's Clubhouse Mysteries. The books feature the exploits of buddies Rashawn, Jerome, Ziggy and Rico. The boys are neighbors and have formed a club called the Black Dinosaurs, named after Rashawn's toy apatosaurus. The mission behind the Black Dinosaurs is to be a group where the boys can have secrets, make plans, and above all, hide their treasures. The four boys built themselves a clubhouse in Ziggy's backyard (his parents are the most laidback about things like this) and have regular meetings with a rotating secret code word - which works out great, except that Ziggy can never quite remember the current code.
The first entry in the series, The Buried Bones Mystery, is the set-up, explaining a bit of each boy's back story and telling about the formation of the club. Right away, the boys find that their clubhouse is much more than a place for hanging out - it may just be built on a burial site! When they uncover a box of bones while digging a hole to hide their treasures, the boys find themselves deep in the midst of a mystery that only four intrepid heroes like themselves would dare to tackle. Is there a connection between the destruction of the neighborhood basketball court and the strange bones the boys found? And why does old Mr. Greene keep singing that creepy song, "Them bones gonna rise again"? Leave it to the Black Dinosaurs to get to the bottom of things.
Draper's background as an educator is readily apparent here - she knows what kids like to read, and she gives it to them, with just enough thrills to keep even the most uninterested reader turning pages. There's lots of humor and plenty of quirky behaviors (no one takes him/herself too seriously). Her characters are compelling too, each boy solidly filled-out with a unique persona and perspective. Rico, for instance, craves Ziggy's wild and rambunctious household which stands out in stark contrast to his own carefully structured home he shares with his cautious mother. Rashawn has a police officer dad and a somewhat crazy dog named Afrika. And Jerome loves basketball, but most often he gets stuck watching his two younger sisters in order to help out his grandmother, who cares for all of them. Together these four make a fantastic team, as each one has strengths that complement the others' weaknesses. Boys especially will love the Black Dinosaurs and wish there was a troupe like these in their own neighborhood.
Other entries in the Clubhouse Mysteries series:
Book 2: Lost in the Tunnel of Time
Book 3: Shadows of Caesar's Creek
Book 4: The Space Camp Adventure
Book 5: The Backyard Animal Show
Book 6: Stars and Sparks on Stage
Age range: Elementary/Middle Grade
Bonus: interview with Sharon M. Draper from the blog Fireside Musings